Clippers and Cavaliers Wouldn't Have Today's Stars Without Long-Forgotten Trade

Josh Martin@@JoshMartinNBANBA Lead WriterDecember 1, 2016

LOS ANGELES, CA  - MARCH 13: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers hugs Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers after the game on March 13, 2016 at STAPLES Center in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2016 NBAE (Photo by Andrew Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

LOS ANGELES The Los Angeles Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers—who face off at Quicken Loans Arena Thursday night—can each trace their rise into the NBA's elite to a single twist of fate.

For the Clippers, it was the moment "basketball reasons" made Chris Paul available in 2011. For the Cavaliers, it was LeBron James' 2014 Ohio homecoming.

But for both teams, the seeds of their current successes were sewn well before those respective Banana Boat buddies came to the rescue. Bleacher Report spoke to sources with knowledge of the deals involved to detail the inside story.

The ball got rolling almost as soon as James invaded South Beach in July 2010. With one fell swoop, the Cavaliers went from perennial Eastern Conference contention to a soup-to-nuts rebuild.

Once those No. 23 jerseys were done smoldering in the streets, the team landed on its first order of business: stockpiling picks at all costs.

If it couldn't keep a proud son of Akron from fleeing northeast Ohio, how could it hope to draw a star to a barren team in free agency? The Cavs' best bet was to try to land one in the draft, since they didn't have the assets to trade for another up-and-comer. Acquiring more picks meant more shots at the bull's-eye, however tiny the target.

Cleveland had to track down a team with someone to shed and a pick to grease the skids.

Enter the Clippers.

       

The Perfect Partner

LOS ANGELES - DECEMBER 6:  Blake Griffin #32 and Baron Davis #5 of the Los Angeles Clippers sit on a bench and during the game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center on December 6, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. The Clippers won 98-91. NOTE TO U
Noah Graham/Getty Images

According to sources, David Griffin, then assistant general manager to Chris Grant in Cleveland, called front offices all over the league. He was offering up the Cavaliers' cap space as refuge for unwanted contracts, so long as they came with draft picks.

Among those he rang was Neil Olshey, then-GM of the Clippers. They had known each other for years, first meeting when Griffin was an intern with the Phoenix Suns and Olshey was an assistant for former NBA super-agent Arn Tellem. But Griffin didn't have to be so close to Olshey to know that Baron Davis was on the trading block; he just had to see what was going on in L.A.

In July 2008, Davis, fresh off a career-defining stint with the "We Believe" Golden State Warriors, signed on to be the Clippers' hometown savior by way of a five-year, $65 million deal. But even at—or because of—that price, the order of overcoming then-owner Donald Sterling's thriftiness, racism and cultural toxicity proved too tall.

Injuries and concerns about conditioning didn't help Davis' cause, either. Neither did his clashes with Clippers coaches nor his noxious relationship with Sterling, who took to heckling Davis from his sideline seat during games.

"Baron's his pet project. He absolutely hates Baron," a team source told Marc J. Spears, then with Yahoo Sports, back in December 2010. "He wants to get his money back."

Davis, though, had served a purpose. He helped showcase Blake Griffin, the No. 1 pick in 2009, as a burgeoning superstar. After sitting out what would've been his rookie season to recover from a fractured knee cap, Griffin broke out as a high-flying dunk machine, thanks in no small part to Davis deftly dishing lob after lob.

That connection turned Clippers basketball into a bona fide box-office bonanza. Seats at Staples Center filled up. Disgruntled season ticket holders put down their pitchforks and torches.

Not that the team was winning much more: Without Griffin in 2009-10, it notched 29 wins. It won 32 with him the following season.

The time was nigh for a full-blown Clippers youth movement. It was clear that Griffin (21 at the time), DeAndre Jordan (22), Eric Gordon (22), Eric Bledsoe (21) and Al-Farouq Aminu (20) were going to lead the way.

Davis, for all he'd done to elevate Griffin and shield his young teammates from Sterling's virulence, couldn't stay in L.A. for such a project. His age (nearly 31) and ailing knees put him on an entirely different timeline from that of the Clippers' rising stars. Plus, Sterling wouldn't stand for his defiance or the $28.65 million that remained on his contract, per sources familiar with the team's thinking.

The Clippers had to handle the situation carefully, lest they put off Griffin by moving Davis.

Here's what Olshey told Ramona Shelburne and Chad Ford of ESPN.com:

Look, Blake really likes Baron. But Blake also knows that we're in it with him and Eric for the long haul and he knows we've gotta do what's right for the organization and he trusts both [coach] Vinny [Del Negro] and myself that we're gonna put the right pieces around him. I can tell you that the first thought process at any point when we start to do a deal is, 'How is this going to affect Blake and Eric?'

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 12:  Baron Davis #5 of the Los Angeles Clippers gathers Blake Griffin #32 and Eric Gordon #10 for a chat during the game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center on January 12, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User
Harry How/Getty Images

Back then, Griffin was expected to do what had become customary for Clippers stars: ditch the franchise as soon as he could. With his off-court popularity soaring, he could've accepted a one-year qualifying offer from the Clippers in 2012 and either forced a trade or left in free agency the following offseason.

Thus, L.A. couldn't trade Davis for cap relief alone. It had to get a contributor in return who could help the team compete immediately and pass muster with its owner.

       

The Swap

Just as the Clippers were suited for business with the Cavaliers, Cleveland had plenty to offer L.A.

Namely, a distraught former All-Star of their own in Mo Williams, whose contract was much more cap-friendly than Davis'.

All it would cost L.A. was a 2011 first-round pick that, given where the Clippers were in the standings, didn't project to finish higher than No. 8 (barring a lottery miracle) in a weak draft. By rule, they couldn't put any protections on the pick because they had already sent away their 2012 selection to snag Bledsoe's rights in 2010. The lack of protection made the selection a more attractive trade chip in Cleveland's eyes, per sources.

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 10:  Mo Williams #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Baron Davis #1 of the Los Angeles Clippers chase after a loose ball during their game at Staples Center on March 10, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackno
Noah Graham/Getty Images

The two sides pulled the trigger on the trade, with Jamario Moon joining Williams en route to L.A. to match salaries.

The Clippers finished 11-11 with Williams running point—a hopeful harbinger for the option year he picked up as a condition of the deal. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, won six times in 15 games with Davis after losing 54 of 67 (including a record-tying 26 in a row) without him. Cleveland's own pick slipped in the lottery that summer, from No. 2 to No. 4.

The selection from the Clippers, on the other hand, miraculously jumped from No. 8 to No. 1, becoming the Cavaliers' golden ticket for Duke's Kyrie Irving.

     

L.A. Finds Its Star

According to sources familiar with the Clippers' thinking, L.A. didn't fret about the pick's improvement; it was already gone. And between the team's depth at the point (i.e., Williams and Bledsoe) and the need to field an immediate winner around Griffin, adding another teenager at guard wouldn't likely have affected the franchise's immediate outlook.

What did make a difference, however, was the cap space the Clippers had without Davis on the books—and the big names they might attract to fill it.

For one of the few times ever, stars around the Association were paying attention to the Clippers.

There was the intriguing young core, with Griffin at the epicenter. There was the brand-new, state-of-the-art practice facility in Playa Vista, a neighborhood located on the west side of L.A. And there was Los Angeles itself, with all of the attendant spoils.

Those factors had all helped the Clippers score a free-agent meeting with LeBron James in July 2010. At that point, the Clippers hadn't finished with a winning record since 2006. Griffin had yet to play in a real NBA game. Sterling's then-pending legal actions involving his past two general managers (Elgin Baylor and Mike Dunleavy) made L.A.'s onerous ownership impossible to ignore.

But the Clippers' presentation, led by Olshey and then-team president Andy Roeser, left a strong impression with James and Leon Rose, his agent at the time, per sources familiar with the meeting.

Rose, the top basketball man at CAA, also represented Chris Paul.

PLAYA VISTA, CA - DECEMBER 15:  Chris Paul speaks at a press conference introducing him as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers on December 15, 2011 at the Los Angeles Clippers Training Center in Playa Vista, California.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Imag
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Griffin's Rookie of the Year breakout and Jordan's jump into the starting lineup brought L.A.'s pitch to life. So when the 2011 lockout was lifted and Paul pushed to leave the then-New Orleans Hornets, the Clippers found a receptive audience when they came calling. They were one of three teams (the Los Angeles Lakers being another) with whom the superstar point guard would willingly opt into the final year of his contract once traded.

The Clippers also had the parts New Orleans was looking for: an expiring contract (Chris Kaman), young players (Gordon, Aminu) and a juicy draft pick (the Minnesota Timberwolves' 2012 first-rounder). Once then-commissioner David Sternacting as president of the league-owned Hornetsput the kibosh on the Lakers' Houston Rockets-assisted package of Lamar Odom, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and a 2012 first-rounder, the Clippers swooped in with theirs.

For Griffin, Jordan and the team's tortured fanbase, Paul's arrival immediately portended the thrill of "Lob City" to come.

That season, the Clippers went 40-26 during a shortened schedule and cracked the second round of the playoffs, ending a five-year drought and beginning a franchise-best streak of postseason appearances that's poised to extend into a sixth spring this year.

For the organization, having a generational star like Paul choose the Clippers lent them instant credibility. He could lead their young talent on the court and attract helpful veterans off it.

According to sources familiar with the Clippers' situation, Paul made the team a palatable destination for Chauncey Billups, whom the team claimed off amnesty waivers. He recruited Caron Butler before and Kenyon Martin during the 2011-12 season and pulled the proper strings to bring Jamal Crawford and head coach Doc Rivers to L.A. in 2012 and 2013, respectively. As the president of the National Basketball Players' Association, Paul could bend the ears of just about any colleague to the Clippers' pitch.

Within eight months of Paul's arrival, the Clippers had Griffin's signature on a five-year max extension, averting yet another disastrous departure. In just over three-and-a-half years, after Sterling's prejudices went viral again, the team sold to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer for $2 billion—more than five times the price of a 2010 private valuation, per sources.

       

A Win-Win

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 help pick up LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the game against the Golden State Warriors in Game Seven of the 2016 NBA Finals on June 19, 2016 at ORACLE Arena in Oakland, Californ
Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

The Cavaliers made out quite well from the Davis-Williams deal, too.

Despite questions about his health and conditioning in college and predraft, Kyrie Irving turned out to be a stud from the jump. He ran away with Rookie of the Year honors, albeit after missing 15 games during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

By then, Davis was long gone, his contract cut via the amnesty provision in the collective bargaining agreement that ended 2011's work stoppage.

As bright a young star as Irving was, he alone couldn't revive the Cavs after James' departure. Nor could any of the other questionable selections Cleveland made thereafter.

In 2011, the Cavaliers drafted Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 pick over Klay Thompson and Jonas Valanciunas. The following year, they added Dion Waiters (over Andre Drummond, Damian Lillard and Harrison Barnes) and Tyler Zeller (by swapping out three picks for the No. 17 pick). The year after that, they passed on Victor Oladipo with the surprise pick of Anthony Bennett at No. 1.

The Cavaliers fired Grant as general manager in February 2014 and promoted Griffin, in part on the merits of the deal for Davis he had pulled off, per sources familiar with the situation.

Olshey made out fine, too. During the summer of 2012, he opted for a raise from the Portland Trail Blazers, dodging the post-Sterling purge two years early.

Despite Cleveland's struggles, Irving's talents caught James' attention. So did the Cavaliers landing the No. 1 pick for the third time in four years.

After the Miami Heat got their clocks cleaned by the San Antonio Spurs in the 2014 NBA Finals, James decided to return home to the Buckeye State. Griffin then flipped Wiggins, Bennett and a 2015 first-round pick for Kevin Love, and voila!

Cleveland was a hoops powerhouse again.

      

Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. All sources obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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